jeudi 29 mai 2008

Angels and Saints: political staging in post-revolutionary Georgia

Article published in, 11/01/2007 Issue
By Birgit KUCH (postgraduate programme “Critical Junctures of Globalization” / Institute of Theatre Studies, University of Leipzig) in Tbilisi

© Birgit Kuch ("Liberty monument" in Tbilisi)

On November 23, Tbilisi acquired an additional monument: The new “Liberty Monument”, which is 40 meters high and topped by the golden shining statue of St. George, is located on “Freedom Square” in the centre of the Georgian capital. It was inaugurated by the Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili in the context of the celebrations of the third anniversary of the Rose Revolution. By chance or not, it was November 23, 2003, the holiday of St. George according to the orthodox calendar, when the former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze had declared his resignation. Ever since, in Georgia, the Christian holiday “Giorgoba” has been celebrated together with the ceremonies for the anniversary of the Rose Revolution, which are characterized by various theatrical elements, and which regularly enable Saakashvili to demonstrate several alliances and intertwinements.

Political staging is a method used strikingly often by the current Georgian leadership. Since performing artists are often directly involved in them, it is possible to understand this staging of political events as part of the theatrical landscape in post-Soviet Georgia. However, the current political developments are also clearly commented in the theatres. In a country where political decisions have an immediate influence on living conditions, two extreme examples demonstrate Georgian contemporary society’s orientation towards politics:


The prelude to this year’s Rose Revolution ceremonies was constituted by a service in honour of St. George in the Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral, during which Saakashvili’s son Nicolozi was baptized by Patriarch Ilia II. Accordingly, the Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko became his godfather and Nino Ananiashvili, prime ballerina and ballet master of the Tbilisi Opera, became his godmother. With this act, the Georgian president managed to establish a more than symbolic, almost family intertwinement with the church, including the most prominent leader of the “coloured revolutions” and most important ally in the CIS, and last but not least, the artists of Georgia while employing the most famous face of the Tbilisi Opera as godmother.

The inauguration of the “Liberty Monument” took place after solemn speeches in the Georgian parliament, where the guests of honour from Poland, Ukraine and Estonia stressed their countries’ support for Georgia.

Given as a gift by Zurab Tsereteli, a sculptor of Georgian origins who is working in Russia, the foundation stones of the monument had already been laid during last year’s Rose Revolution celebrations with the participation of Yushchenko, and its erection had been initially planed for Spring 2006.

During his inauguration speech, Saakashvili called for unity and patience in the country: “St. George will lead a united, strong and honourable Georgia to final freedom. Georgia will be united.” Furthermore, he explained, referring to the medieval battle of Didgori that Georgia is at the point of no return on its way to freedom. “Those who want to make Georgia kneel down will soon understand that they will fail and we will get stronger.” Hinting at the fight of the saint with the dragon which is expressed in Tsereteli’s statue, Saakashvili continued: “Good will always prevail over evil. Today Georgia is building a modern European state.”

Additionally, during the monument’s inauguration the ties between religion, arts and politics were successfully staged—especially for the television viewers—when several TV-stations broadcasted the ceremony live on the screens. Ilia II and officials could be seen on the platform behind Saakashvili and in front of him the enthusiastic crowd, holding children and flags.

However, while inspecting the location after the inauguration it appeared that the area around the platform was blocked off for ordinary citizens. Thus, the faces in the ceremony, like the faces for the “Liberty Monument,” were selected. What does freedom actually mean in this context?

However, since the first foundation stone was laid, there appeared numerous critics of the monument: It is felt to be too showy and people ask who is actually represented by the dragon killed by St. George. There were even rumours that the final erection of the statue which had been delayed several times would be the dressing down for a war against the breakaway regions. The strongest criticism, though, comes from the orthodox circles themselves, who are referring to the church’s rule forbidding the creation of statues of saints.

The artists also expressed their loyalty for the president. The Opera Choir opened the show which wrapped up the ceremonies with the aria “Gloria” from the opera “Aida”. Several other stars sang for their native country and for the revolution, and the Georgian National Ballet performed the war dance “Khorumi” as they had done the year before.

However, this time they did without the burning torches and the concert, more modest than last year’s was concluded after about 45 minutes with a fireworks display.

The vicinity of the artists to politics which was demonstrated at this occasion is a phenomenon known from Soviet times. In contemporary Georgia it is not unusual to have public political ceremonies such as Saakashvili’s inauguration from January 2004 staged by theatre directors.

There is one significant difference, though, as the example of this year’s Rose Revolution celebration indicates: The physical participation of the working masses is no longer needed—the event is staged for the cameras.


Yet, not all artists back Saakashvili. “Soldier, Love, Bodyguard and … the President”, Robert Sturua’s production which criticises the government and the society was performed in the Rustaveli State Theatre two days after the celebrations.

A young soldier appears in the first act—he, who is marked by the war, is staggering on crutches and repeatedly screaming the new national anthem, which was introduced by Saakashvili during his inauguration. The soldier bumps into the angels who were, for whatever reason, sent to Georgia.

Assuring themselves again and again of their place of arrival (“Sakartvelo!” “Georgia?”), with the soldier’s help who tells them Georgian city names, the angels become frightened by the mention of Stalin’s birthplace, Gori. At the same moment a spotlight covers the life-sized statue of the dictator which looks down on the events until the end of the performance.

The performance continues with the fight of the soldier with the boss of the angels who is repetitively healing and breaking his leg and telling a joke which would never reach the punch line. Moreover, the touching fingers from Michelangelo’s allegory “Creation of Adam” are ironically repeated.

Finally, the three angels who accompanied their boss to Georgia are dismissed by a decree from above and reduced to begging until they appear again out of the blue, while doing the transition to the second act, as secretaries on the president’s court. Instead of them, their boss takes the soldier’s wife to heaven leaving her baby behind. From now on with perambulator, in the second act the soldier will work for the president as well.

Accordingly, the new bodyguard, a nephew of one of the ministers, is introduced to the court of the paranoid president, whose performer amazes with an incredible resemblance to Saakashvili. “No, I don’t speak English, but I’m learning it”, he answers to the president’s question about his language skills. This is one example of various allusions in the theatrical production which aims at contemporary Georgian realities. The topic of the performance is the paranoia of an unable and manipulated dictator whose bodyguard attacks the dentist when he intends to inject a painkiller in the president’s mouth before the treatment.

During this scene, the noises of bombardments and shootings are ignored by the court—the enemy attacking from outside is searched for among themselves. The dentist is declared to be a state enemy, his fingers are broken at first and he is executed afterwards. He will not remain the only victim; later the bodyguard kills the entire court, including himself and the president. Only one person in the state stays alive and crowns himself with wings of angels.

Saakashvili as a dictator? The theatrical production by the Georgian star director suggests it. However, the possibility of such a production at a state theatre demonstrates that contemporary Georgia is still far from the model of South American dictatorships implied in Sturua’s production. Far more interesting are the manifold small hints at contemporary circumstances, such as militarism, mania of change or the allegories with the angels.

Yet, Sturua was sometimes criticised for this work, too; and the financial sorrows of the theatre have become greater since the production’s opening on November 27, 2005. Lasha Bugadze, the author of the play, is particularly unsatisfied. He explains that both parts were isolated from a series of 25 mini-plays and therefore torn from their context. They were drafted for a performance length of about 15 minutes, but not for an evening of three hours, he continued. Besides, he had already written these scripts in 1998, and they thus belong to another political era, Bugadze insists. Referring to Sturua’s popularity among the Russian audience, he says finally: “Actually, I would not like to laugh together with the Russians about my president.”

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